Recently there have been a handful of studies criticizing the use of vitamin supplements to prevent or cure disease. These studies, though they are few compared to the studies touting the benefits of vitamins, have made national headline news—Multivitamins Did Nothing to Prevent Cancer, Heart Disease in Older Women and Studies Reveal Vitamins C, E Do Not Prevent Prostate Cancer. Okay, so vitamins may not single-handedly prevent cancer. That’s no news to supplement advocates. Unfortunately, these media reports have failed to recognize that vitamins and minerals are absolutely essential in ensuring that our bodies function at their best, that, at optimal levels, they can indeed reduce the risk of developing a host of health problems, and that most of us simply are not getting optimal amounts.
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are 13 vitamins (A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12, C, D, E, K, folate, and biotin) and 14 minerals (calcium, chromium, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc) that are essential for human life. These essential vitamins and minerals, along with many other nutrients, are the necessary components that drive all metabolic and biochemical processes in our bodies, and the right balance of these nutrients allows all of the body’s systems to function optimally.
A good diet provides many of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function properly, but more often than not, the average American diet is lacking an optimal intake of some of these nutrients. According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “many Americans consume more calories than they need without meeting recommended intakes for a number of nutrients.”1 And this is referring to the recommended intakes, which are the amounts needed to prevent outright deficiency diseases, not the amounts that are needed to improve overall health and provide resistance to degenerative diseases.
“More than 90 percent of Americans are deficient in some vitamin or mineral,” says Mark Hyman, MD, founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center in Massachusetts and author of The UltraMind Solution (Scribner, 2009). That doesn’t mean that we are getting less than we need for optimal health—it means that we are getting less than the minimum amount required to prevent deficiency diseases like scurvy or rickets.
This is a troublesome statistic considering that vitamins and minerals are vital for the functioning of every organ and system in the body. Without vitamins and minerals, our bodies would shut down. “These nutrients are the essential ingredients for being alive,” says Hyman. But Hyman believes that none of us are getting the basic nutrients we need to create optimal health. So what gives?
To begin with, food just isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. Even if you are eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, you may not be getting optimal levels of nutrients. The industrialized food system is partly to blame. Food is commonly grown in soils that have been depleted of essential nutrients after years of overfarming. A report published in the February 2009 issue of the journal HortScience found “median declines of 5 percent to 40 percent or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and fruits.” 2 Farmers rely on chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which further weaken the nutrient content in the food. That, compounded by the fact that most produce travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to the consumer means that by the time it reaches the table, food is nutritionally anemic.
Additionally, modern-day processing strips much of the nutritional value from foods. For example, blanching, which vegetables undergo before they are canned or frozen, can destroy up to 60 percent of the vitamin C content, 40 percent of the riboflavin, and 30 percent of the thiamin. Milling of wheat into white flour causes losses of up to 40 percent of the vitamin C, 65 to 85 percent of various B vitamins, 59 percent of the magnesium, and 72 percent of the zinc.3
What if you eat a natural, whole-foods diet loaded with organic food? Research shows that organicallygrown food is more nutrient dense than conventionally-grown food, so you are better off. But Taryn Forrelli, ND, a naturopathic physician in Massachusetts, says, “The ideal diet would require us to buy fresh produce everyday, prepare the meal ourselves, and eat it in a relaxed state of mind so our digestive systems can do their job of breaking down foods and absorbing nutrients. I think many health-conscious people try to eat such a diet, but often end up short at the end of the day.” Forrelli says that most people just aren’t eating the number of servings of fruits and vegetables required to obtain the vitamins and minerals the body needs to function properly. “In fact,” she says, “less than 50 percent of the population meets the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), which are based on nutrient amounts needed to prevent deficiency diseases, not on amounts needed to maintain optimal health.”
Many health professionals even question the value of the RDAs. The recommendations set by the government are not tailored to individual needs but are set to prevent deficiency diseases in the “average” person, not taking into account things like age, gender, genetic makeup, or health issues. Additionally, our modern problems are not deficiency diseases like scurvy or rickets, but rather degenerative diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. The recommendations are generally outdated. They don’t reflect current research, and they certainly don’t promote optimal health.
Hyman also says that modern lifestyles—exposure to toxins and chemicals, too much stress, not enough sleep, and too little exercise—make the nutritional demands on our bodies even heavier. “In today’s world, everyone needs a basic multivitamin and mineral supplement,” he says. “The research is overwhelming on this point.” A good multivitamin/multimineral supplement will provide all of the essential vitamins and minerals, in amounts of at least 100 percent of the recommended daily allowances. Most health professionals agree that multivitamins and other supplements are an important part of a healthy lifestyle. A recent study found that nearly 80 percent of doctors recommend dietary supplements to their patients to maintain health.4 “Food should always be your first line of nutritional defense,” says Marci Clow, a registered dietitian in Santa Cruz. “Supplements shouldn’t be used to replace good eating habits, but they can help to replenish essential nutrients when our diets fall short, which they often do,” she says. “Supplements help fill in nutrient gaps.”
But what exactly should you be taking? “For most people, a high-quality multivitamin, a calciummagnesium supplement, vitamin D (he recommends 2,000 IU), B vitamins folate, B6, and B12, and a fish oil supplement will take care of the basics,” Hyman says.
However, under certain conditions such as stress, medication use, age, gender, family history, infection, or chronic illness, you may consider adding, or increasing amounts, of certain supplements. For instance, women who plan to become pregnant should increase their amounts of folic acid, zinc, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).v If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease, you may decide to include supplements specific to supporting heart health, like CoQ10, omega-3 fatty acids, and Lcarnitine. Or if you suffer from arthritis, you could include supplements that maintain joint health, such as glucosamine, MSM, and omega-3 fatty acids. Remember that everyone is different, so you have to know and understand your own nutritional needs to build a supplement program that best suits you.
Each year, numerous studies are published in major medical journals that support the use of dietary supplements for the treatment of specific conditions, prevention of diseases, or for general nutritional enhancement. Such studies can be found in The Journal of the American Medical Association, New England Journal of Medicine, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, to name just a few. In addition, several leading research institutes and national associations such as the National Institutes of Health, John Hopkins University, and the Harvard School of Public Health, have conducted and released studies on the benefits of dietary supplements. So, no, vitamins may not prevent or cure cancer, but they do play a vital role in keeping our bodies in optimal health. Consider taking supplements as a kind of nutritional insurance policy—there are no guarantees that you won’t develop cancer or heart disease, but they may just provide the right foundation to reduce your risk.
Most health professionals agree that everyone should take a daily multivitamin to fill in those “nutritional gaps,” but with so many choices, how do you know which multi is best for you? Here is a breakdown of the basic types to help you make an informed decision:
Tablets, capsules, powders, or liquids: The delivery form is a matter of preference and absorbability. Those who have a hard time swallowing “horse pills” may choose to take capsules, powders, or liquids. Properly made tablets and capsules will both dissolve readily in the stomach, but some believe that powder and liquid supplements are more easily assimilated. However, because of poor taste powders and liquids are often made more palatable with sweeteners and artificial ingredients.
One-a-day or multiple doses: Many busy people prefer the convenience of a one-a-day multi, but this form is best for those who are getting most of their nutrients from a healthy diet, as these usually provide only the very minimum daily values. Typically, taking three to six pills, divided throughout the day, provides larger amounts of the essential nutrients, in addition to allowing your body to consistently maintain healthy nutrient levels.
Whole food or food-based: Whole food vitamins are “grown” in a food medium, which provides all of the cofactors needed for the body to fully assimilate the nutrients. Similarly, food-based vitamins include a food complex that may consist of fruit and vegetable concentrates. Proponents of these types say they enhance digestion and absorption of the nutrients compared to isolated forms of vitamins.
Chewables or gummies: These are often more palatable to children, but be sure to avoid those that contain artificial ingredients and sweeteners. Children can mistake chewables and gummies for candy, so be sure to keep them well out of reach of the little ones.